DES MOINES, Iowa — Arkansas coach Eric Musselman described defending national champion Kansas as a “well-oiled machine” whether or not Jayhawks boss Bill Self is on the sideline.
However, the outplaced Jayhawks appeared to be slipping on grease at times in the second half, as the rising Razorbacks erased a 12-point deficit to prevail 72-71 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament Saturday night at Wells Fargo Arena.
Eighth seed Arkansas (22-13), looking to advance to its third straight Elite Eight, moves on to the Sweet 16 of the West Regional in Las Vegas. The top-seeded Jayhawks (28-8) was looking to become the first repeat champion since Florida in 2007, but lost for the first time this season after leading at halftime.
The Razorbacks will face 4th seed Connecticut and 5th seed Saint Mary’s Sunday night in Albany, NY
“It’s such an (amazing) win for our program, I keep telling people we’re getting better,” a jubilant Musselman told CBS Sports in the aftermath of the upset. “Not many teams can improve this time of year. … I’ve never been more proud of a team than tonight.
Musselman, in an extravagant tradition dating back to his Nevada coaching days, took off his shirt on the field in celebration, but put it back on for the postgame interview.
Arkansas has lost more games than it won in regular season Southeastern Conference competition (8-10), but the Razorbacks are loaded with talent, including two potential top-10 NBA draft picks this summer in freshman guards Nick Smith Jr. and Anthony Nero.
It was Arkansas guard Davonte Davis, however, who stole the show Saturday before a mostly dumbfounded crowd, scoring 21 of his 25 points in the second half as the Razorbacks erased the double-digit deficit.
“We’ve been working a lot, it’s crazy,” Davis told CBS. “I’m glad we came away with the win – we got to work. This team struggled, but we understood that. Glad we did and figured it out at the right time.
One of the biggest plays of the game occurred when Arkansas forward Kamani Johnson grabbed an offensive rebound with 47 seconds left and the ensuing layup gave the Razorbacks a 67–65 lead. Arkansas guard Ricky Council IV also got an offensive rebound off his missed free throw with 23 seconds left.
The Council was fouled and coolly made the resulting two free throws to give Arkansas a 70-67 lead with 20 seconds left.
The late coming Razorbacks finished ninth in the SEC regular season before winning their first two games of the NCAA Tournament against ninth-seeded Illinois and then Kansas.
Musselman said his team needs to continue playing “with a clear mind and not feeling pressured” — and the Razorbacks certainly seemed to do so with the season at stake against one of the best teams in the nation.
Self handled Kansas practices but missed postseason games as he continues to recover from doctors inserting two stents into his heart to help open blocked arteries, after he checked into a Kansas City hospital March 8 . Assistant Norm Roberts coached games in Self’s absence.